How It All Began

by Penelope Lively

How It All Began

Hardcover, 229 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $26.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

The mugging of a retired schoolteacher on a London street has unexpected repercussions for her friends and neighbors when it inadvertently reveals an illicit love affair, leads to a business partnership and helps an immigrant to reinvent his life.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: How It All Began

Chapter One

The pavement rises up and hits her. Slams into her face, drives the lower rim of her glasses into her cheek. She is laid out there, prone. What is this? Voices are chattering above her; people are concerned. Of course.

Bag.

She says, "My bag."

A face is alongside hers. Woman. Nice woman. "There's an ambulance on the way, my dear. You'll be fine. Just keep still till they come."

Bag.

"Your shopping's right here. The Sainsbury bag."

No. Bag.

Bag is not. She'd known that somehow. Right away.

Another voice, up above. Man's voice. "She's been mugged, hasn't she? That's what it is."

Ah.

Voices discuss. She is not much interested. Nee-naw, nee-naw, neenaw.

Here it is. Know for whom the bell tolls.

Expert hands: lifting, bundling. In the ambulance, she is on her side, in some sort of rigid tube. She hurts. Where is hurt? Don't know.

Anywhere. May as well try to sleep for a bit.

"Keep your eyes open, please. We'll be there in a few minutes."

Trolley-ride. On and on. Corridors. People passing. Right turn.

Halt. More lifting. They take the tube away. She is on her back now.

Nurse. Smiling but business-like. Name? Address?

Those she can do. No problem.

Date of birth?

That too. Not a good date of birth. Rather a long time ago.

Next of kin?

Rose is not going to like this. It's morning, isn't it? Rose will be with his lordship.

Next of kin will be at work. Not bother her. Yet.

On Mondays, Rose arrived at the house later than usual, having stopped off at the bank to collect some cash for her employer and to pay in any checks that might have arrived the week before. Henry did not care to fiddle with cash dispensers and could not be doing with the electronic transfer of money. He insisted on paper in the hand, for minor payments such as lecture fees or book reviews. E-mail too was beyond his remit; Rose dealt with that. Probably Henry did not know how to turn on the computer. Though you wouldn't put it past the old devil to be cruising cyberspace once she was out of the house, Googling old friends and enemies.

"I propose we drop Lord Peters and Mrs. Donovan, Rose. All right with you?" Her second week with him, way back, and actually it hadn't been all right, not at first. She had called him "you" for months. He was after all her mother's generation, never mind what else he was, or had been. She called some of her mother's friends by their first names?

Yes, but she'd known them all her life and they hadn't been Regius Professors and head of Royal Commissions and adviser to a prime minister and what have you. String of letters after his name; people sometimes glancing at him, thinking: why do I know that face? Shirty enough if anyone looked like taking liberties: "Curt letter, Rose, saying Lord Peters does not provide puffs for other people's books, and if you're feeling expansive you could add that no, Lord P. does not recall his conversation with the author in 1993."

Well, in ten years a relationship tends to solidify. The newly retired, brisk and self-important Henry for whom she had first come to work had mutated into a querulous, though still self-important, seventy-six-year-old with a gammy knee, a high consumption of claret and certain unpredictable behavior patterns. You trod carefully.

Occasionally you considered chucking in the job. Except that it was extremely convenient, he'd always paid a nice little bit above the odds, and you never knew what might happen, which was better than a desk in an office. And at the beginning, it had been the answer to a prayer: part-time, mornings only, she could be home to get the children from school, free to be theirs for the rest of the day.

Now, of course, that wouldn't matter — James in Singapore, Lucy at college.

Over half an hour late. There had been a long wait at the bank, to get that check in. He'll be tetchy. Opening the post himself, grunting over each sheet of paper. Or purring: "Rather a nice letter from Cornell, Rose. They want to give me an honorary degree. What do you think — shall we go over and collect it?"

He did not like to travel alone now. From time to time she was prevailed upon to escort him. Swings and roundabouts: you got a trip to somewhere you wouldn't otherwise have been; but the trip was with him, who could be a pain. One became "Mrs. Donovan, my PA," and there was a lot of hanging about and making small-talk to strangers or no talk at all. The hotels could be a bit of a treat. And because someone else was paying it, was business flights, or first-class rail.

She walked the last few hundred yards away from the bustling road and onto his leafy quiet street with the smart white stucco houses.

Expensive houses. Academics are not usually well-heeled, apparently, but Henry's father had been some sort of industrialist; money had filtered down to Henry — hence the house in a grandish part of London.

Distinctly grand if you yourself live in a semi in Enfield, and grew up modestly enough in the suburbs of St. Albans, daughter of two teachers.

Henry was kindly patronizing about her parentage, on occasion: "Accounts for your exemplary syntax, Rose. Breeding will out."

Her mother had ever been crisp about Henry. His lordship.

Needless to say, they had never met. Her mother was entertained by the stories that Rose could tell of his lifestyle and his remarks — gleeful, indeed, sometimes — but Rose was well aware that she considered the job menial. Rose could have done better than that. The subject was never raised — comment and counter-comment remained unspoken: "Literate, numerate, efficient — there'd have been all sorts of options"; "But I never wanted a career. I chose this."

From How It All Began by Penelope Lively. Copyright 2011 by Penelope Lively. Excerpted by permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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